Fire, iPads, Angry Hominids, and the Wrath of Zeus

We are all astounded by the ability of a child to learn. Indeed, I have been told fascinating stories by parents who place iPads in the laps of their 18 month year old children. Fantastically, the children learn to use the devices on their own, and within very short order. They discover the button, they push it, and the manipulate what they see. My comment on this: of course they do! That’s why they were invented! To reduce the effort of discovery to elemental objectives: one button to push (and in newer iterations, even that has been removed); desirable colors and forms to swipe; the immediate gratification of feedback that encourages further swiping!

If seeking convenience and simplicity were the reason for the invention of the iPad, then why are we so surprised that an 18 month old child would master it in such short order. Indeed, we should be proud to have achieved our objective. Then, we should quickly turn it off, hide it, and begin teaching the child to listen, observe, understand, and learn about the world that surrounds him or her, the good, the bad, the easy, and the challenging, and the interconnectedness that lies between all of it. And make no mistake, once that’s done, we can give them the iPad again to help in their journey.

You see, digital is not a form of thought. Rather, it defines a new class of tool and technique we can use to achieve particular goals. This is important. It is simply a tool. The fact is, the human condition remains as it has since one particular hominid in the dawn of our species unexpectedly created a spark in an act of frustration that manifested itself in an angry frenzy of banging rocks against one another. Her discovery, born of accident (and, likely, a little surprise), led her to uncover something that would impact social behavior forever afterwards. Fire. Prior to her angry outburst, those who preceded her learned to endure, and survive, the coldest environments on earth. Then, in one frantic act of frustration, she forever mitigated one critical challenge to her community’s survival.

Fast forwarding three or four hundred millennia, her distant progeny unleashed the potential for all knowledge to be accessed by the push of one button. The point here is this: neither fire nor knowledge, nor the iPad, is of any value on its own. The important part is the learning and understanding that are required, first to learn, then to apply, all of them, meaningfully. It wasn’t fire alone that motivated Prometheus and scared the bejesus out of Zeus. He chained Prometheus to a cliff where crows feasted on his liver for all eternity precisely because of the potential and power that the understanding and use of fire provided humankind.

Like Planck, Einstein, de Broglie, Compton, Bohr, and others many millenia later, she who discovered fire unleashed the potential to mitigate an impediment to existence. In doing so, she removed the necessity of bearing with what had theretofore been a significant obstacle to survival. But fire, much like quantum phenomena, and much like the technological accomplishment the combination of the two ultimately led to called the iPad, it is a tool we have created. And in its mastery it allows us to accomplish greater goals and achievements. Fire, quantum mechanics, and iPads are not ends in themselves. Yes, we must learn the skills involved in how they are used. However, and more importantly, we must acquire the knowledge and ability to think in order to use them in contextually meaningfully ways. They are the means to reach more deeply into understanding and improving who we are, and in doing so enable us to impact ourselves and the communities in which we live.

Simply knowing that fire, quantum mechanics, and iPads exist is not enough to understand their potential and to use them in meaningful ways. Rather, we must first understand what they are, how they became, and how they function. We have to understand their place in the world, how they emerged, what they imply, and how they impact us in both obvious and unique ways. In elementary school I was fascinated by the walls of our classrooms. They were walls, but they had wheels on top! And in one unforgettable moment of understanding, I watched in awe as our teacher, with a simple push, removed all of the walls separating our class from the ones beside us. The walls I had been sitting within for weeks to that point simply accordioned away into corner pockets. Our classroom was suddenly four times the size and quadruple the population. I witnessed engineering to a degree beyond the mousetrap my grandfather taught me to make. In that environment, and for the next few weeks, we entered the project phase of our unit of learning on Ancient Civilizations. Myself, in this community of learners within a flexible learning environment circa 42 years ago, I researched and rebuilt, in papier-mâché miniature, the ancient Greek city of Olympia. And it was good. Seven years later I would build a guillotine.

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